This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (1/15/17), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 40:1-12 & John 1:29-42
You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
Welcome to the wilderness.
The wilderness beyond the Jordan river is where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. It’s where the Hebrew people wandered for forty years after their escape from Egypt. In this same wilderness, Elijah heard the still, small voice of God.
The wilderness is a place free of human habitation and interference. It’s far away from the noise, busyness, and worries of everyday life. It’s a space in which the cultivated concerns of civilization – wealth, power, politics, and honor – fall away.
When human beings venture out into these wild places, we’re stripped down. We’re left with the more basic questions of life. We enter into a realm of raw survival and sense experience. We ask ourselves: “What will I eat and drink? What lies ahead, beyond that ridge? How will I defend myself against wild animals?” Life becomes very real, very challenging, and very simple.
You might think that this journey into a life of such basic thoughts of food, shelter, and warmth would be a brute existence. After a few days in the wilderness, it wouldn’t be surprising if we were transformed into thoughtless animals, concerned only with the next meal. And that is indeed one possible outcome of the wilderness journey. Yet paradoxically, throughout the history of God’s people, we’ve repeatedly seen the opposite. The Holy Spirit draws us out into the desert to experience the most transcendent, majestic, and holy things in the midst of the struggle to survive.
For us here who live in the heart of civilization, our highly cultivated lives have become a distraction. The machinery of civilization, the mighty works of human beings, are enough to consume all of our attention. Presidents and pontiffs, roads and sewer systems, rent to pay and jobs to get done. Our lives are very busy, very full of important matters that demand our attention. There’s very little room for the holy silence of the desert. Little attention for the howling animals of the forest. Our eyes have become so fixated on the glowing screen that we’re incapable of perceiving the burning bush.
We like think that we’re in control. That’s what life in civilization is all about. We’ve come to believe that we can direct the flow of history. That we are the authors of the story, rather than minor characters carried along by the plot written by Another. With all our science and industry, we can fly to the moon, shape the human genome, and finally, just maybe, brew the perfect cup of coffee. The dream and driving myth of civilization is that we can fix the world. We can make everything work correctly. We just have to put our minds to it.
The wilderness isn’t interested in what we put our minds to. It doesn’t really care about how smart we are, or how hard we work. The wilderness is a place of waiting. It’s a place to listen. It’s a parallel dimension in which human beings are still utterly dependent on the forces of nature. When we’re in the wilderness, we belong to this world – not vice versa. We become desert creatures.
John the Baptist was a desert creature. He was a man drawn into the wilderness by God. He was emptied out by it. He was a young man, an ambitious man – full of drive, dreams, and passion. God called him into a wilderness life, into a journey that stripped away every ambition but one: To preach the message.
The message that God gave John wasn’t an ideology. It wasn’t the basis for a mass organization that could throw out the Romans, purify the Temple, or even reform the Pharisee’s brand of Judaism. John’s message was a wilderness message, a message that was fundamentally incomprehensible to those who still lived in civilization. John’s message wasn’t about the power of good people to change the world. It wasn’t about incremental progress through human effort. John’s message was simply and solely about the power of God to intervene in history and establish his direct rule.
John’s message was simple, but no one understood it – probably not even his own disciples. Everyone expected God to come out of the wilderness and enter into the history of civilization. To become a civilized God. For almost everyone, the hope of Messiah was that God would establish a great king on the throne, in the line of David. To establish a political dynasty that was like all the other kingdoms of the earth – but better.
But John knew that God couldn’t be domesticated. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God of the wilderness. He can’t be contained in temple, a government, or a throne. Despite all our efforts to create a place for God in the midst of our civilization, God was never interested in that. The God of John the Baptist didn’t come to reside in cities and high towers. Instead, he brought his people out of the bondage of civilization and into the wilderness. With the coming of the Messiah, God would go a step further. He would bring the wilderness into the midst of the city.
When Jesus came out to the edge of the wilderness, John and his disciples were baptizing people in the Jordan river. The baptizers were practicing the ancient Jewish purification rite of mikveh – a ritual washing with water for purification. For John’s people, immersion in water signified repentance and preparation for the coming of God’s reign.
But even as they prepared themselves in this way, John was always clear: This outward cleansing with water was just a shadow of what the Messiah would bring. John baptized with water, but Jesus was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit. John baptized for preparation and repentance. Jesus would bring about the healing and transformation of the whole cosmos.
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is what John said when he took his first look at Jesus down by the banks of the Jordan. The Holy Spirit had come down and rested on Jesus, and in that instant John knew that his ministry was complete. His own eyes had seen the promised savior.
John’s ministry was never about himself. He was always focused beyond himself, on the Messiah. There were lots of people who wanted to make John the Messiah, but John was crystal clear from the very beginning. He was just a messenger. When the people pressed him to identify himself – maybe he was the reappearance of Elijah? – John identified himself with the words of Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
The voice of one crying in the wilderness. That’s who John was. That’s who we are. That’s our job, too.
Have any of you ever watched Battlestar Galactica? The new one, not the 1970s version. It’s an amazing show. I won’t go into all the details right now, but for those of you who have seen it, there’s a phrase that is repeated over and over through the four seasons of the show: “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.”
Well, it’s happening again. We’re being called again into this wilderness journey. We are being invited to become desert creatures. Like John, we are called to become voices in the wilderness, crying out and making straight the way of the Lord.
The people of God have been called into the wilderness many times. We were called out into the Sinai when Moses led us out of Egypt. We went out to see the wild man John the Baptist, out beyond the Jordan. We returned again to the wilderness, when the church became the official religion of the Empire and it seemed like the only authentic faith was to be found in the desert. As the followers of the risen and living Jesus, we return to the wilderness again and again as he calls us.
Moving out into the wilderness is always a challenge. It pushes us out of our comfort zone spiritually, psychologically, and physically. The wilderness journey is one of loss and grief. We’re forced to let go of the life we thought we knew, the world we believed existed. We must face the reality of our own complicity with evil – and what it will cost us to turn towards the light.
And as if all of that weren’t enough – as if it weren’t sufficiently challenging to embrace our grief, face our shadow, and suffer the loss of comfort and stability – we’re asked to do more. Like John, we are challenged to acknowledge, freely and immediately, that we are not the Messiah. We are not the Messiah. We are not the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There’s one savior, and he’s not us.
Of course, you knew that, right? So did I – intellectually. But if I’m being really honest with myself, I have to admit that most of the time I act as if everything depended on me. I’ve spent most of my life under the delusion that my life could drive history. Both popular culture and religion have encouraged this in me. “Make a difference! Let your life speak! Be the change you wish to see! You are somebody!”
I’ve been told my whole life that I have personal responsibility for the way that history turns out. Since I was a little boy, it’s been implied that I’m supposed to be the hero of the story, the person driving the plot to a satisfying conclusion. And if I’m not that person, if I’m not the protagonist of history, then I’ve basically failed as a human being.
So for me, it’s a revolutionary thing to truly understand and accept that I have found the Messiah. Because if I’ve found him, he’s not me. If I’ve found the ultimate Protagonist of history, that means that I’m out of a job. I’m stripped of the illusion that my life, my effort, my intelligence, my faith, is the most important thing I can offer humanity and the universe. When I find the Messiah, I learn that the most important thing I can do is to be human, love boldly, and accept the reality that I flow in history – I don’t direct it.
This has always been hard for me. It’s even harder now that I see history flowing in such a dark direction. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wonder whether maybe these days we’re living are actually an alternate timeline – and maybe I could fix it by going back in time and changing some tiny thing. There we go again – control!
It’s hard to let go of control when the stream we’re caught up in seems so odious, so opposite to that moral arc that we’ve been taught history is bending towards. It’s hard to embrace a savior who is not us, when we want more than anything to take matters into our own hands and influence the course of history. It’s hard to admit that we’re so small, so weak, so marginal to the flow of events in our generation.
But maybe this turn of events in the cultural, political, economic, and environmental state of our country is the only thing that could have woken us up. Maybe we needed this to hit rock bottom, to realize that trying to be in control of history is just too painful. More than ever before in living memory, our country really needs a savior. And it sure as heck isn’t me.
So what do we do in times like these? When our culture seems so dark, and it’s clearer than ever that we can’t solve the many injustices and pathologies of our nation? What is our role to play as friends of Jesus?
Our reading from Psalm 40 gives us a good example to live by. It says, “I waited patiently upon the LORD, he stooped to me and heard my cry.” There are two pieces here, right? The psalmist “waited patiently upon the Lord” – repentance – and God “stooped to me and heard my cry” – redemption.
This is the pattern we see in John’s life and ministry, too. John and his followers waited patiently upon the Lord. They waited out in the wilderness, out beyond the Jordan. They waited patiently as the thick darkness of Roman occupation suffocated their nation. They waited patiently while the collaborators – military and civil authorities – got rich off of the exploitation of their people. They waited patiently in poverty and humility, knowing that they were not the Messiah, but that God would send one. They waited patiently upon the Lord.
Our minds resist the way of John, the way of the wilderness. They insist that we need to fight, that we have a responsibility to overcome the darkness and restore justice to our community. This temptation is seductive, because it’s partially true. We do have a responsibility to work for justice in our society. We do have a role to play in the struggle to birth the reign of God into the world. John and his followers weren’t irrelevant to the affairs of the world. There’s a reason John was murdered by Herod. In a broken world, obedience to God always challenges the status quo. John was a desert creature, and the world could not comprehend him. And that’s why he had to die.
We are called to be desert creatures in the midst of this city. We are followers of Jesus. That means we stand in the prophetic heritage of John the Baptist. It’s a powerful heritage, one that brings down Empires and changes the course of history. But if we’re to stay sane, healthy, and centered in the Spirit – if we’re to overcome the world just like Jesus did – we have to stay grounded in that wilderness mindset. We have to remember who we belong to. And who the Lord of history is.
The power of the Holy Spirit that is at work in us has the power to change the world. We have a responsibility to be faithful in the struggle, to make ourselves proactively available for God’s work in the world. But we can’t make it happen. The Author of history will be its perfecter. We are called to be friends of Jesus, who lend a hand as we’re led by him.